Monday, 10 August 2015

Word Become Bread! Bread Become Flesh!

“Moses said to YHWH, “But, never in my life have I been a man of eloquence,either before or since you have spoken to your servant.” Ex 4:10

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B: 

Word Become Bread! Bread Become Flesh!

In this Sunday's 'First Testament' reading from I Kings (19:4-8) we encounter Elijah the prophet on the run. He is running for his life after defeating the priests of Baal on Mount Carmel. His victory and slaying of the priests enraged Queen Jezebel who had brought the priests of Baal to Israel. She swore to kill the holy prophet Elijah. In our section of Kings, we meet Elijah who is at the end of his physical and psychological strength, in of all places, the desert. Not even the beauty of the landscape can comfort him. There in the wilderness he asks for an end to his misery; "Lord, I have had enough! Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors." Elijah was God's appointed prophet. He was doing what he was supposed to be doing, faithfully preaching God's Word. Now he is filled with self-doubt. When people experience hard times they sometimes think God is punishing them for doing something wrong. But Elijah did not do anything wrong. He is enduring the usual rejection and threats of violence inflicted on God's prophets. Some endured more than threats and were killed for their faithful service to God. This is happening even in our day.

He thinks or probably more accurately feels, that he is no better than his ancestors but actually this is far from the truth. He is better than his ancestors because we do not find him complaining like the people in today's gospel (John 6:41-51) about the lack of food in the wilderness. Conscious of his own inadequacy as a prophet he entrusts his soul to God. It is a lovely irony that just because Elijah gives priority to the word of God he is able to survive on bread alone. Perhaps ‘survive’ is not quite the right term here. Recent scientific research suggests that regular ‘fasting’, keeping down the number of calories we consume, is actually good for us. It gives the body an opportunity to repair damaged cells and can prevent the onset of cancers or diabetes. If Elijah managed to walk all the way to mount Horeb on a stone baked loaf (this sounds rather good!) and a jar of water that might indicate that he was used to a meagre diet. It would be quite fitting if, without knowing it, the prophet lived a longer and healthier life as a result of self-denial in the service of God.

The fact that an angelic being ministers to Elijah’s very human needs reminds us that there can also be spiritual dangers in self-denial. A failure to respect the body’s needs for food and drink may be a sign of depression or self-loathing. The material and spiritual dimensions of life are inseparable and it can be just as much a temptation to undervalue our bodily nature with its various needs as it is to overindulge it. In the gospel today people are "complaining"–they are ‘murmuring’ just like the Israelites in the desert with Moses–they are not complaining about a lack of food. They are complaining that Jesus seems too ordinary, too perhaps human? "We know his father and mother, How can he say, 'I have come down from heaven'" The problem is not one of communication. Many of them would readily have understood the implications of what Jesus is saying. The giving of manna, the feeding of the chosen people with bread from heaven, was often associated in Jewish minds with the giving of divine teaching. In other words Jesus is clearly giving his teaching a unique status – he sees his own teaching as indispensable and as life-giving as our daily bread. Jesus has declared in his time of trial in the desert, "Humans do not live on bread alone, but on every word that flows from the mouth of God." (Deuteronomy 8:3)

In the wilderness, after praying for death, Elijah falls asleep. Then he has a double-dream theophany. An angel wakes him and provides food for him. We can see where the story is going. Like Israel's sojourn in the desert and when we cannot provide for ourselves, God can nourish us. And that's exactly what God does. The prophet cannot continue on his own, but God nourishes him for the "long journey" that lies ahead. Elijah's problems aren't removed, but God provides what he needs for the next phase of his mission. God has more for him to do. Elijah is given food in the wilderness to strengthen him to walk for; "forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God." On Horeb (or Mount Sinai) God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, another kind of bread for hungry people in the desert. The theme of being fed on physical and spiritual bread are them amplified in today's gospel.

Elijah was not just on a journey he chose for himself. He started out as a fugitive fleeing for his life but after his encounter with the divine messenger his flight becomes a pilgrimage that will take him to a holy place. Isn't that the way life can be for us? We find ourselves in a crisis, or stressed, hardly getting through a day. We cry out for help, when we discover we cannot provide for ourselves. Somehow God visits us in our wilderness, gives us nourishment to continue our life journey. At the end, when we look back on the difficult experience, we realize God was there for us each step of the way. God has not abandoned Elijah, but seeks him out. In our times of weakness, God does not abandon us, but seeks us out. The Elijah story helps us to trust in the gracious provision of God. It is a story of a human who cannot help himself. Which leaves plenty of room for God to move in with bread and water, nourishment to continue the journey.

What Jesus is trying to help his "complaining" listeners understand about "the bread" that he gives it is unlike the manna their ancestors ate in the desert. His bread is a bread that satisfies our true and deepest hunger and gives us life for the new age that he is inaugurating. Jesus doesn't debate with his opponents. If they try to just use their reason they will never get to understand what he is teaching. The crowd are closed to what Jesus is saying to them. Logic does not work for them in their encounter with Christ. The way people come to Jesus is that they are to be "drawn by the Father". Seeing with the 'eyes of faith' is a gift from God. What an opportunity Jesus' hearers have before them! The Father is drawing them to Jesus, but they are resistant. We cannot achieve God on their own, but must be drawn by God, who gives faith. The invitation to believe Christ's teaching is also there for us and all who will listen to Jesus. Do we accept what the religious authorities rejected, "the bread that has come down from heaven?" Our communion this weekend should be an affirmation of faith experience the Bread of Life, the Body of Christ. Amen..